Opportunities and Perils for the Church of England

This month’s ‘Anglican Update’ for Evangelicals Now:
As never before in my own lifetime, the Church of England is at a crossroads moment of great opportunity and yet great peril.
I have mentioned before in these columns the opinion of a colleague on the Crown Nominations Commission that the senior ministers of the Anglican Church are “staring into the abyss” when it comes to declining numbers.
Consequently, a new breed of bishops is emerging who are ambitious for church growth. At the same time, existing bishops and their dioceses are being required to come up with proposals to reverse the decline.
Just a month ago in our own diocese of Chelmsford, I thus found myself for the first time sitting listening to a bishop, who had just come from speaking at an evangelistic event himself, telling a gathered group of his clergy how to do evangelism.
Wherever this is happening, it clearly presents even the most conservative of Evangelical Anglicans with the opportunity for involvement not just in the evangelism itself but in the structures of their diocese.
Some may find this extraordinary — not that a bishop should be doing such a thing, but that it took so long for it to happen. Surely the Church of England has had Evangelical bishops before now? And indeed it has, but sadly they have almost to a man failed to produce a more ‘evangelizing’ denomination. In our case, that has been achieved by a man from (formally speaking) a Liberal-Catholic tradition.
And therein lies the peril, for at the same time as these developments are taking place, the Church is under immense pressure, both from without and within, to change its teaching and practice on human sexuality.
Early in December there were headline reports about the Church’s refusal to allow the registering of civil partnerships on its premises. But in a subsequent interview on Radio 4’s Sunday programme, the Bishop of Burnley made it clear that this prohibition could be overturned by the General Synod.
At present that would not happen, but already on the bench of bishops there are several, including some self-identified as Evangelicals, who would not uphold orthodox teaching. Moreover, the House of Bishops itself has recently set up a ‘review group’ to look at the whole issue of civil partnerships and specifically to consider whether clergy in such partnerships could be made bishops.
Furthermore, back in July the House announced the commencement of “further work on the Church of England’s approach to human sexuality more generally”. It would be surprising if none of the ‘unorthodox’ bishops found themselves involved in these processes and (sadly) just as surprising if the orthodox stood up to them robustly.
Meanwhile, increasing numbers of churches are openly identifying themselves as ‘inclusive’ regarding sexuality. Doubtless the pressures for this come from the clergy. The laity are generally more traditionalist. But as society as a whole has shifted ground on the subject, so it is becoming easier for Liberal clergy to persuade their congregations to accept the changes. The significance of this will be seen, no doubt, in Synod elections a few years hence.
The orthodox therefore face a difficult challenge. On the one hand, it is vital that they do not withdraw from the institution just at the point where the whole issue of gospel proclamation can be brought to the fore. At the same time, they must develop and make the case for sexual orthodoxy and, if necessary, must be willing to confront even those bishops who are leading the evangelistic charge in their dioceses.
These are difficult days indeed, but in God’s plans nothing that hasn’t been thought of already.

John Richardson

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